The Election Riots of 1861
As many merchants and Protestants had feared during the debate on
responsible government, in 1855 the Liberal party gained a majority of
seats and the Roman Catholic Phillip F. Little was appointed Newfoundland's
first premier. Though some Roman Catholics allied themselves with the
Conservatives rather than the Liberal party over which the bishop had
great influence, the Catholic church hierarchy effectively mobilised its adherents
during election time, to not only vote Liberal, but also to intimidate
voters who might have supported the other candidates. Added to this, many
merchants and wealthy citizens did not stand for election, since they saw
it as futile to sit as a minority in the Assembly and potentially dangerous
to themselves and their property to run for election.
By 1860, however, the Liberal government was showing signs of weakness.
There were serious tensions between John Kent, who became premier in 1858,
and Bishop Mullock, and between native-born and Irish-born Catholics. Also,
many Methodists, who had hitherto supported the Liberals, were becoming
disillusioned with the leadership. Kent also faced a governor, Sir Alexander
Bannerman, who was highly critical of the government.
The crisis which brought down the Liberals broke early in 1861, over the
government's plan effectively to lower the salaries paid to government
officials (including judges), many of whom were Protestants. The Supreme
Court judges objected, and hired the leader of the Conservative party, Hugh
Hoyles, to argue their case. Already under great strain, Kent lost his temper
in the Assembly and accused the governor, the Opposition and the judges of
conspiring against his government. Bannerman responded by dismissing Kent
and the other members of the Executive Council, and installing Hoyles as
premier. This action was certainly partisan, and probably illegal.
|Sir Alexander Bannerman, 1857
Bannerman was responsible for dismissing Kent and installing Hoyles
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland
and Labrador (PANL VA27-43A), St. John's, Newfoundland.
Since the Liberals still had a majority, Hoyles and the Conservatives soon
lost a non-confidence motion. Bannerman then dissolved the House of Assembly
and scheduled a general election for 2 May. A Liberal victory would mean
Bannerman's disgrace; a Conservative victory his vindication. In an attempt
to ensure the former, Mullock patched up his differences with Kent, but the
Catholic community remained divided. The Anglican Bishop Feild made no secret
of his support for Hoyles.
The election proceeded as many others had in the past. Either Conservatives
or Liberals won easily in districts with clear Protestant and Catholic
majorities. The Conservatives won the swing district of Burin by acclamation.
The outcome hinged upon the districts in Conception Bay, and since the stakes
were high - candidates and their supporters faced violence and intimidation.
In Harbour Grace the governor used the threat of violence as an excuse to not
open the polls. Since the Tory candidates there had already withdrawn, the
effect was to prevent the election of the two Liberal candidates.
No Conservatives stood for election in Harbour Main, but the divisions
within the Catholic community between different towns, natives and immigrants,
and Irish people from different counties, caused trouble. Four Roman Catholic
candidates ran for two seats under the Liberal banner. Two had the backing of
the Bishop of Harbour Grace, George Hogsett and Charles Furey; the other two,
Patrick Nowlan and Thomas Byrne, had the support of some of the local
priests. Confusion and violence - leading to one death - erupted as each
side tried to prevent the other from voting. Eventually the returning officer,
who feared for his life, signed certificates retaining all four
The governor refused to allow any of these men to take their seats in the
Assembly until a committee of the House determined who were the rightful
members. With the election in Harbour Grace cancelled and the Harbour Main
returns declared invalid, the overall result was 14 Conservatives and 12
The Liberals believed they should have had 16 seats, had the governor
allowed the Conception Bay elections to proceed. This convinced the Liberals
that there had been a conspiracy to wrest power from them. When the
legislature met, Bishop Mullock and the Liberals encouraged, with
inflammatory rhetoric, public protest in the streets outside the
Colonial Building. Hogsett and Furey attempted to take their seats
but were expelled, touching off an outburst from the crowd that quieted
down only after the troops from the garrison showed their weapons.
||Bishop John Thomas Mullock (1807-1869), n.d.
Mullock encouraged public protest in the streets outside the Colonial Building.
From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NF), Centenary
Volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1806-1906
(Cork, Ireland: Guy & Co., 1906) 154.
Later that day, members of the Assembly had to be escorted out of the
Colonial Building by troops, an act which prompted more violence. The crowd
rioted, destroying property, especially that owned by Nowlan's relatives in
St. John's. A magistrate read the riot act, former Premier Little and several
priests exhorted the crowd to disburse, without result. Threat and persuasion
achieved nothing, and the standoff on Water Street continued until that
evening when someone in the crowd allegedly fired upon the troops. The troops
then opened fire, killing three people and wounding 20, including a priest.
Bishop Mullock rang the bells of the cathedral to summon the crowd,
which paraded up the hill. Mullock appealed for an end to the
violence. The crowd dispersed without further incident. Many Protestants
criticised Mullock for not intervening earlier, since he clearly had the
influence to stop the violence.
Following the riot in St. John's, Mullock and the governor met and reached
a compromise. The bishop promised to use his influence to discourage further
violence, and the governor promised to restrain the troops at his disposal.
The vacant seats at Harbour Grace were filled in a fall by-election which
was a testing ground for Hoyles' ability to construct an administration, and
Mullock's willingness and ability to prevent violence. Hoyles thought that if
violence and intimidation could be prevented, he would win the district and be
able to convince some moderate Roman Catholics to join his government. The
presence of troops in the district prevented further violence or intimidation
in Harbour Grace, and two Conservatives were indeed elected.
Sporadic violence continued in Harbour Main, but Nowlan and Byrne were
allowed by a committee of the Assembly, to take their seats. Hoyles had his
majority and brought to an end the period of Liberal domination.
Sir Hugh Hoyles (1814-1888), n.d.
The period of
Liberal domination ended when Hoyles was elected Prime Minister in 1861.
Photo by the Stereoscopic Company. From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English,
Colonial and Foreign Records (London: Macmillan, 1895) 488.
The results of this crisis were of lasting importance. The community as a
whole was shocked by the violence which had occurred, and in subsequent years
such incidents became extremely rare. Clerical involvement in politics seems
to have become less overt, and certainly less sensational. Of greatest
significance, over the next decade a denominational compromise emerged in
public life. It became the unwritten rule that governments, and therefore
political parties, should include members of all the churches. In addition,
legislature and the civil service came to reflect the denominational
composition of the population, and the school system was effectively turned
over to the major churches. With the rules laid down, public and political
life could move on to issues that concerned all Newfoundlanders, no matter
what their religious affiliation.
©2001, Jeff A. Webb
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